Category Archives: History

Völklinger Hütte

Travelling in Germany recently for dOCUMENTA, I stumbled upon the Völklinger Hütte, an abandoned ironworks with a rich and remarkable history. Here’s a few photos I took during a daytrip. A concise UNESCO history can be found here.

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Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)

During April 2012, I was part of a group photographic workshop in London where we jointly remade the catalogue for the 1937 Nazi ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition, the world’s first ‘blockbuster’ art show. Information on it can be found here.

The ‘remade’ publication we produced can be viewed here.

Felice Beato

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WAR against WAR!

There has been much debate in recent years as to the value of traditional frontline war reportage. One of the primary arguments is that this kind of warzone imagery is so lacking in context as to serve as little more than  documentary evidence of isolated events within limited geographical locations. It neither informs nor stimulates us to think about the causes of war, the immediate effects of war on anyone outside of the frame of vision, nor the longer term impacts after the killing has stopped. If we add to the mix the highly technical nature of modern warfare where much of the activity occurs within computers potentially thousands of miles away, changes within news organisations with the new media possibilities, and broader geopolitical factors in the complex web of contemporary international relations, it’s perhaps understandable why many people perceive traditional war photography to have past its sell-by date.

By a similar measure, if we look back into photobook history we find relatively few examples of practitioners pushing the medium in trying to explore the broader context of war within their productions. There are notable exceptions of course – Philip Jones Griffiths with his famous work on Indochina, perhaps Stanley Green with his work in the Central Caucasus, Simon Norfolk with his work on Afghanistan and modern warfare generally, and Susuan Meiselas and her work in Central America immediately spring to mind – but one can’t help feel that photographically there has been somewhat of a failure to tackle the full vista of war with all it’s complexities, absurdities, and horror.

One individual who definitely transcends these criticisms is the German pacifist anarchist, Ernst Friedrich, who in 1924 produced one of the first (and arguably, still the best) photographic attempts at scrutinising warfare in his seminal photobook, WAR against WAR! Since its publication in 1924 there have been as many as a million copies in circulation, translated into forty languages. It’s a book that should be well known, however the majority of people I know with a deep interest in photography have never heard of it nor him. I first became aware of Friedrich last year at a Tate symposium on Violence and Representation. In a somewhat unusual scenario, a presentation was made which included some of WAR against WAR’s more horrific images. Such was their power the proceeding speaker (Susan Meiselas) was visibly shaken and struggled to make it through her own presentation, breaking down in fact during the Q&A that followed.

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Representing Amazonia

Even though Amazonia is now the focus of much international attention, and is often considered in a metaphorical sense as the embodiment of humanities assault on the natural world as part of the globalisation frenzy, it is fair to say it remains pretty much off-limits to all but the most committed of travellers. Lingering metaphors of “green hell,” including rampant caricatures of wild Indians and apocalyptic images of environmental devastation are such that whilst there is a greater interest in the region than there has probably ever been it is still a place few people would endeavour to spend much time in.

Amazonia is of course much written about in both specialist and non-specialist publications but much of how people perceive the Amazon is as a direct consequence of the imagery that has emanated from the region during the past century or so. This blog post aims to briefly discuss the history of such imagery, including some key examples from the realms of anthropology, photojournalism, travel, and the fine arts.

Probably the earliest serious attempts to render the Amazon visually came via mid-19th century Victorian naturalists such as Bates, Wallace, and Spruce, independent explorers and commercial scientists focused on the regions flora and fauna. Bates’s 1863 publication, The Naturalist on the River Amazons contained “…a record of adventures, habits of animals, sketches of Brazilian and Indian life and aspects of nature under the Equator during eleven years of travel.” Based upon their extended periods in the field, such naturalists provided the first systematic and widely disseminated accounts of “green hell” the legacy of which remains popular.

Huebner-couple

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Classic Film Set Photos

We all love a bit of film nostalgia. So here’s a few images taken on the sets of classic films.

The Shining, Stanley Kubrick (1980)

The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock (1963)

Godfather, Francis Ford Copolla (1972)

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Subway

“It’s easy to prettify a nation at an airport, but trains show you a place with its pants down.”
Paul Theroux

Many years ago on a campsite in Byron Bay, Australia I had a life changing experience. Someone gave me a copy of Paul Theroux’s classic The Great Railway Bazaar, describing his non-stop journey from London, around the world and back again, all undertaken using the international train network. It was the book that established him as a serious writer and is widely credited with reinventing the travel genre. It also inspired me and countless other travellers to think of the journey as the end in itself with the final destination more the place you just hop on the plane back home again.

Since my time in Oz and my exposure to that particular book, I spent many years working for London Underground. I’ve also undertaken a few epic train journeys of my own. In the past year alone I spent two months travelling from London to Pakistan and six weeks travelling around the crumbling Burmese train network. It’s fair to say therefore that trains have been a big part of my life and that I like them, a lot.

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All images © Bruce Davidson.

I collect photography books and have a small but growing collection portraying life on some of the world’s metro systems. You can imagine my pleasure therefore when on a late-night visit to the Tate Modern a few weeks ago I walked into Room 8 of the State of Flux gallery and discovered the newly acquired Bruce Davidson Subway series hanging on the wall. The photos (taken from his book of the same name) are of the people who inhabited and travelled on the New York Metro system in 1980/81 when it was a dark and dangerous place – you know, back in the days of the Guardian Angels. This body of work is one my absolute favourites and 30 years after it was originally produced it seems to get better and better.

Shot on Canon T90s using Kodachrome 64 film with fill-in flash, the project was primarily a collaborative effort where he approached strangers asking if he could take their portrait, pulling from his bag a sample of previous images to help explain things more clearly. This of course led to numerous intriguing interactions and side-adventures some of which he describes in the book’s afterword.

He often worked using a magenta filter which when combined with flash bounced off the train carriage’s metallic ceilings, giving the images a strange underwater iridescence exacerbated by the high saturation film. The images portray unbelievable scenes of stop motion, flickering moments from the surging flow of life in the underworld of 80s New York that seems almost fictitious in its aesthetic. Moments of despair, tenderness, danger, pity, and beauty – they’re all here, along with a colour pallet and compositional style that went on to inspire a whole generation of photographers, including the likes of Alex Webb and David Alan Harvey.

Prior to commencing the project, Davidson undertook a military fitness regime and crash weight loss programme, conditioning himself as the hunter who “felt like he could become the mugger before he mugged me.” As it happens, he was mugged on a few occasions but he carried on regardless producing one of the finest bodies of social documentary work in the history of photography. I advise anyone who is able to take a trip to the Tate Modern to check out these truly great images.

It’s probably also interesting to post here a few photos by a couple of other photographers who’ve taken on the New York Metro system. Firstly, Walker Evans, who in 1938 produced a body of work called Many are Called. These photos were taken surreptitiously on a Contax camera concealed under his coat. A sad look at daily life in the city, they depict “NYC’s unknowing life soldiers wrapped in their own mind.” The images represent something unique to the individual subject but universal to the urban dweller: the intense loneliness of the quiet mind and the futile search for anonymity inside the citizenry of the mega-metropolis. They were not released until almost 30 years after they were taken and have subsequently been exhibited worldwide, residing in the collections of many of the world’s top modern art museums.

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All images © Walker Evans.

Secondly, Christophe Agou’s Life Below series taken between 1997-2000. These images were shot without flash on Agfa black and white slide film in a classic Leica style using extreme wide-angle lenses. Taken almost 20 years after Davidson’s work it’s amazing to see how much New York changed in such a short period of time. More stylised than Subway or Many Are Called these are nevertheless great images that often resemble film stills, such is Agou’s superb sense of timing, fine use of light and differential focus. A book I strongly recommend checking out.

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All images © Christophe Agou.

UPDATE 1: I’ve just remembered this from the New York Times last year about the NYC subway.
UPDATE 2: See a video of Bruce Davidson talking about his work here.
UPDATE 3: The Sunday Times of 250911 have just ran a 4 page article on Subway, announcing that it has been republished by Steidl. You can download a PDF of the article
here.

Matilda and London

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being one of the invited artists for the 2010 London Elephant Parade, an ambitious attempt by the charity Elephant Family to raise money to help save the endangered Asian elephant. The parade was a great success, raising more than £4 million – significantly more than expected – which went directly to projects in India and Thailand.

The elephant I submitted, Matilda, was covered in a delicate patchwork of 2,000 historical photos of London carefully selected from the archives of the British Library, the Press Association, the Science and Society Picture Library, the Museum of London, and English Heritage. It turned out to be a successful work, selling for £15,000 at Sotheby’s to a collector in the Cayman Islands (where she now sits). A selection of studio images of the completed elephant can be seen here and the formal press release here.

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One of the most exciting parts of this project was the image selection process when about 10,000 photographs were reviewed and carefully filtered to ensure a good and balanced set of photos that were both historically representative and which also had a strong aesthetic coherence. The selection covered the period from about 1880 to 1970 and was a bewildering mixture of the absurd, the tragic, the informative, the disturbing, and the intriguing.

Matilda was eventually exhibited at the Museum of London for about two months though the majority of people reading this will not have had the opportunity to see it and take pleasure in any of the superb photos. So I have decided to post here a selection (80) of some of the 2,000 that sit on Matilda. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have and oh, do spare a thought for those people who had to stick the damned things!